This is a Building Blocs piece, in which we discuss the getting of book deals.
Here at Writers Bloc, we do our best to answer questions about the art, craft, and lifestyle of writing. Some questions we get more often than others. One question we get more than any other is, ‘How do I get my book published.’ The short answer to that is, ‘With great difficulty.’ The longer answer is below. Enjoy!
What even is a book deal?
What does it do? What does it mean? Where does it come from? We’re going to briefly touch on the mechanics of a book deal – please note we’re talking traditional publishing here, not self-publishing which is a whole other monster.
A book deal is a publishing arrangement where a publisher pays you for the rights to publish your work for a specific period of time. The publisher assumes most of the publishing costs and pays the author an advance, and royalties against the advance.
What is an advance?
This means the publisher will pay you an amount they think the book will reasonably recoup in royalties. For example, if they anticipate the book will sell a certain amount, say, around $10,000 worth, then your advance will probably reflect that. Essentially, the house is investing in your book—betting on you comfortably making that much money. It’s worth remembering that while publishers are run by good people who love writing and publish you because they believe in you, they are still businesses, and businesses need to turn profit. It’s also worth remembering that an advance is not a cap on ambition, just a baseline.
They are also traditionally paid in three instalments, with a third when you sign a contract, a third when you deliver the manuscript, and a third when the book hits the shelves.
I like The Sound of Royalites!
Yes, they are the best. Royalties are the author's share of money earned from book sales. In Australia, they are normally around 10% of the cover price for a standard paperback release, and 25% net receipts for an eBook.
After your advance is earned out, you continue to earn royalties against sales for every book you sell forevermore.
That sounds OK, doesn’t it?
A huge advance is always nice, but it’s not always the best thing for an author Most contracts stipulate that the publisher is entitled to ask for an advance that doesn’t earn out to be repaid. To be fair, this almost never happens, but at the same time, it’s not a good look to have failed to earn out an advance, especially when negotiating your next book.
Whatever. Where can I get one?
Finding a publisher is a little like dating. Yes, it’s daunting and yes, they are too good for you, but at the same time, they are terrified of missing out on something special, and most publishers are happy to consider pitches. The first thing to do is research.
Make sure you find a publisher who works in the genre of your book. There’s no point trying to sell memoir to a fiction specialist, or spec-fic to a house that mainly does cookbooks. Make sure you familiarise yourself with the back-list of the house you are approaching. Even if you make it onto their books you don’t want to be with a house that has no idea how to work with, market, or publish your genre.
Finish your manuscript before approaching editors/agents. No matter how much you like an idea, or how excited you are, the end result will always be better if you finish the job before you go to market. Make sure you are 100% sure about the story you are telling, and the way you want to tell it.
It sounds elementary, but tell a story. You’d be amazed how many people write a book without telling a story. What is the story you want to tell? What is the narrative arc behind it? Who are your characters? What’s in it for the reader? Have you written something people will want to read!
Write the best manuscript you possibly can, to the point where you are confident you are submitting the best work you are capable off. Get a mentor or writing group or workshop to help you polish it as best you can, get constructive criticism and revise as many times as possible. There is never really a reason to rush, but one of the biggest mistakes new writers make is rushing to the publisher. Cool your jets some, and it’ll pay dividends.
Non-Fiction books tend to be a little easier to market, especially for debut authors, and also easier to pitch to publishers. Rather than completing a manuscript, you can write a book proposal.
This should include a synopsis (about a page), a chapter breakdown, a sample chapter or example of your writing which will echo the content of the proposed book (around 5000 words is a good length) and author details (a little about yourself, your past achievements and publications).
It’s also important to demonstrate that you know how your book will be positioned in the market. You’ll want to methodically research similar titles, and work out if the book you want to write is filling a gap in the market. It will need to be unique, but at the same time, it can’t break all the rules of the category you are trying to break into.
Is it that easy?
No. It’s way harder, and often your vision will not align directly with your intended publisher. The process of writing a book for publication is long, and involves compromise, patience, and the willingness to learn. The basic equation is something like this:
Talent + Buckets of Sweat + Heaps of Luck + Compromise + Publisher = Book Deal.
And this concludes our dangerously reductive guide to scoring a book deal. Of course, there is much more to know, and exceptions to every rule, and we haven't even touched on agents (we will soon, promise) but hopefully this has cleared up a few questions. Good luck!
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